Infection in older adults: a qualitative study of patient experience

Abigail Moore, Sara McKelvie, Margaret Glogowska, Dan Lasserson, Gail Hayward

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Background: Infection is common in older adults. Serious infection has a high mortality rate and is associated with unplanned hospital admissions. Little is known about the factors that prompt older patients to seek medical advice when they may have an infection.

Aim: To explore the symptoms of infection from the perspective of older adults, and when and why older patients seek healthcare advice for a possible infection.

Design and setting: A qualitative interview study among adults aged ≥70 years with a clinical diagnosis of infection recruited from ambulatory care units in Oxford, UK.

Method: Interviews were semi-structured and based on a flexible topic guide. Participants were given the option to be interviewed with their carer. Thematic analysis was facilitated using NVivo (version 11).

Results: A total of 28 participants (22 patients and six carers) took part. Patients (aged 70–92 years) had experienced a range of different infections. Several early non-specific symptoms were described (fever, feeling unwell, lethargy, vomiting, pain, and confusion/delirium). Internally minimising symptoms was common and participants with historical experience of infection tended to be better able to interpret their symptoms. Factors influencing seeking healthcare advice included prompts from family, specific or intolerable symptoms, symptom duration, and being unable to manage with self-care. For some, not wanting to be a burden affected their desire to seek help.

Conclusion: Tailored advice to older adults highlighting early symptoms of infection may be beneficial. Knowing whether patients have had previous experience of infection may help healthcare professionals in assessing older patients with possible infection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E312-E321
JournalBritish Journal of General Practice
Issue number5
Early online date6 Apr 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Apr 2020


  • 80 and over
  • aged
  • frail elderly
  • infection
  • qualitative research


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